Monday, November 6, 2023

How Might We Lead With a Set of Common Beliefs (about learning!)


While exploring the Education Leadership group on Linkedin I came across this:

  •  "A competent curriculum leader is able to clearly articulate their philosophy on 'how students learn best.' They and their team need to lead with a common belief."
This jumped out at me as I've been spending some time delving into what seems to be the most important factors/principles that determine whether a school is effective or efficient (see previous post). What I have discovered to be one of the most important principles is no surprise as it has driven my work as an educational leader and has been the area where I have been focusing most of my work with schools and organisations with my consultancy HMWLead.

The number one principle seems to be that effective schools have clearly articulated and shared beliefs about learning that are lived in every classroom (Modern Learners). The simple bit might be determining what the shared beliefs about learning should be. Often, the harder bit is ensuring that they are lived in every classroom. The Education Leadership quote above, in my view, is pointing the way towards this happens - it is, in fact, by everyone leading with these common beliefs. If this happens then the practices to ensure it is happening in every classroom will emerge.

The quote also points to the fact that it is important that the core beliefs that drive a school should be about learning and about how people learn. It is all very well to have a set of core beliefs and values that are largely behavioural (eg respect, honesty, integrity etc) but learning beliefs and values should be front and centre in a school.

Determining what these shared beliefs about learning are should start with answering the question:

  • "How do children and adults learn most powerfully and deeply in their lives?" (Modern Learners).
The investigation I am carrying out certainly supports the assertion made by Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon from Modern Learners that without a collaboratively created/developed belief system about what makes learning powerful that is lived each day through classroom norms for learning and a common language, schools cannot develop each child to their potential as a learner.

If we accept that being a self-directed and self-determined learner is the most important skill to develop within our learners then it is vital that we take the time to discuss how we can create the conditions in our schools for these skills to develop. And when we have settled on the principles/beliefs that we believe create these conditions we have to make sure that they are visible everywhere in our school, in the language we use and the classroom practices we adopt.

Based on what we see in the research about what makes for powerful learning for today's students what are examples of some elements that could be the core of our beliefs about learning? Here are a few:

  • Know your students (Education Leadership, Bishop)
  • Learners at the centre (OECD, Innovation Unit)
  • Student agency (Education Leadership, Wenmouth)
  • Connect learning horizontally and to the real world (Innovation Unit, OECD)
  • Inquiry based approaches (OECD, Innovation Unit)
  • Experiential learning (Centre for Strategic Education, Innovation Unit)
  • Promote collaboration and interaction (Fullan, Education Leadership, OECD)
  • Measure what matters/A4L (Innovation Unit, OECD)
  • Stretch and support all learners (OECD, Education Leadership)
This is by no means an exhaustive list and cleverer people than I will be able to add to it. It is a good starting point for discussion as groups of teachers interrogate their beliefs and the beliefs of others about what makes for deep learning.

The key, of course, is then to discuss and agree what impacts these beliefs would have on our teaching practice. For example:

  • truly knowing my students and how they best learn will mean I'd have to adopt a relationship based approach to my pedagogy and implement culturally sustaining practices
  • knowing my students would mean I'd be aware of their needs, interests and passions and would incorporate them into my learning design, and my belief in student agency would have me co-constructing learning and assessment programmes with individual learners
  • belief in connected learning (across subjects and with the real world), inquiry-based approaches and experiential learning would have me exploring a relevant project-based learning model
  • promoting collaboration and interaction would mean incorporating appropriately organised and structured co-operative group work throughout my learning design
  • a belief that we should measure what matters will require me to search for ways to track how well my learners are collaborating, showing self-determination, being resilient in their learning etc. I will also need to ensure that all learners know what is expected of them and why that is expected
  • if I'm wishing to stretch and support all learners I will need to be designing learning according to the principles of Universal Design for Learning
In the end, it doesn't matter too much what the core beliefs about learning are (though I'll cover that in another post). What matters is that the core beliefs about learning are known, understood, shared and drive the learning in all classrooms.

I wonder if all schools can say they have a set of clearly articulated and shared beliefs about learning. If they do, I wonder if they know that they are truly lived in every classroom. I also wonder if all leaders lead with those common beliefs. I know that I couldn't have answered 'yes' to those questions throughout much of my leadership.

Once again, this looks like demanding work, but it also looks like rewarding and exciting work.

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